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Sponsored higher education - think America

I note with disappointment the recent controversy here regarding the disbursement of government scholarships and placement in university courses. I believe the policy solutions to these problems are clear enough - any discrimination in university admissions or scholarships ought to be on the basis of income and access to educational opportunities, not race.

The bumiputra may be severely disadvantaged - Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak claimed in 1997 that only 5% of public university students would be Malays if the quota system were to be completely repealed - but this only strengthens the case for discriminating on the basis of actual disadvantages, rather than race, when clearly many bumiputera are not wanting for any opportunities economically or educationally.

However, barring a sudden turnaround in government policy or a wholesale change in the composition of the federal government, it is crucial that individual students be aware of other opportunities available to them should the public purse be unable or unwilling to assist them in their education. Private scholarships are a common form of assistance which many rely on to study, either at local private colleges or in foreign universities.

In spite of this, not many know about private scholarships offered by universities in the United States. Eight American universities, including half of the Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth) will fund the education of any applicant who is admitted, inclusive of tuition, living expenses, etc. Although they require a separate financial aid application, they will not consider ability to pay when making admissions decisions, meaning applicants will be evaluated purely on scholastic merit. All admitted students who choose to attend receive financial aid, mostly scholarships, in proportion to their ability to pay the fees.

Furthermore, many other American universities also offer financial aid to students. However, because they generally do not have the large endowments of other institutions, financial need is a factor in admission, meaning poorer applicants must make up for their inability to pay in academic accomplishments. In spite of this, once the student is admitted, many of these institutions commit to funding their education as much as possible.

I write about this because I have noticed that most students do not even consider the US when deciding where to attend university. Although there are disadvantages with the US system - most universities only offer four-year programmess, and American law degrees are not recognised locally - there is no reason to automatically exclude it from contention. If anything, American universities offer much more affordable educations because of their extensive financial aid programmes for the needy.

There are two main barriers to a good education. The first is intellectual and academic - if you cannot make the cut, you will never get into Harvard or Cambridge. The second is financial - how on earth can you pay for Harvard or Cambridge? Many Malaysians are not wanting for brains, but desperately need financial assistance for their higher education. As someone currently benefiting from financial aid at an American university, I believe this is an opportunity which too many bright Malaysians are passing up. Even if you do not think you can get into Harvard, there is no point in not trying - most universities will even waive the application fees if you can demonstrate financial need - and there are so many other lesser-known but equally great institutions eager to help qualified and talented students obtain a higher education.

I strongly urge all parents, students and educational counselors to re-examine the US university system and the opportunities it offers for bright but economically disadvantaged students. Malaysia has no deficit of intellect, but it is squandering its most promising minds through unequal disbursement of scholarships and placement in university courses. Until we rectify this policy problem, individual Malaysians must find our own way, and one route which is often overlooked is that which lies across the Pacific in the US.

For the past three years, concerned students and alumni have helped organise an annual education fair meant to highlight the educational opportunities available in the US. This year, the fair - USA For Students - is being sponsored by the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and will be held this June .

Even if you are unable to attend the fair, the Internet offers many more ways to gather information. Recom , an online forum set up by students, is devoted entirely to educational problems many Malaysians face, from scholarship interviews to applying for placement in local or foreign programmes. Individual university websites also provide a wealth of information on how to apply for financial assistance.

It is not enough for us to rely on the government to spoonfeed us, either in money or education - we must be proactive and learn to help ourselves, if the government is unable to. Malaysia needs all the talent it can get, and we owe it not just to ourselves as individuals, but to ourselves as a nation, to get the best education we can, and to make the most out of ourselves so we can serve our country.